Picking The Brains of Brain&Brain, The Indie Devs Behind ‘Burly Men at Sea’

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A little over a year ago, the quiet adventurers over at Brain&Brain released an interactive choose-your-adventure type story, Burly Men at Sea. The game is their second release since the well-received mobile platform title, Doggins, and thus Burly Men at Sea was met with a wave of praise and appreciation of the simpler, minimal things that make up the core of the game.

Behind the scenes, this indie dev team is made up of a married duo: David and Brooke Condolora. Each half of Beain&Brain split their specialized roles; Brooke serves as the resident graphic designer/illustrator, animator and folklore aficionado, while David deals with the more technical aspects of their projects, like programming and sound design.

I had the distinct opportunity of chatting with the team and asked them a few questions I had rattling in my own brain.

Due to scheduling conflicts, the team was interviewed separately with the same questions. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

David and Brooke Condolora, the team that makes up both halves of Brain&Brain

GoombaStomp (GS): To start off, what exactly was it that got you two started on Burly Men at Sea specifically? And the specific theme of the game?

DC (David Condolora): So, it had been a name that we’d kicked around, since before we were making games. We just thought it was a funny name. It lent itself to lots of visual images. And Brooke, when we were working on Doggins, just shortly after…did a little sketch, in a coffee shop, one day, of three bearded fishermen, and that was sort of the start of what the game was all about. It started out as name, we had some visual ideas. Brooke started rediscovering her love for Scandinavian folklore.

That’s how she started developing the story of what these three brothers encounter when they out to sea. Yeah, so it started from a name and snowballed from there.

BC: (Brooke Condolora): The name came from a joke that we’ve since forgotten, years before we were making games. But it stuck with us, and we knew it was too good not to use. It really set up its own story, and the Scandinavian setting and folklore influence were just a natural fit for three bearded fishermen on an adventure.

BC: (Brooke Condolora): The name came from a joke that we’ve since forgotten, years before we were making games. But it stuck with us, and we knew it was too good not to use. It really set up its own story, and the Scandinavian setting and folklore influence were just a natural fit for three bearded fishermen on an adventure.

Brooke, David, and their Doggins.

GS: Were there any other adventure video games, like The Secret of Monkey Island, that went into Burly Men as inspiration? Was there anything specific that led you to the game’s nautical themes?

BC: Since we already had the name, its nautical setting was a given. But we did draw influence from other sources besides folklore, like a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, and Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

As for the game’s point-and-click nature, I think it’s definitely a style of gameplay we’re drawn to, though we didn’t set out with that in mind. With Doggins, our goal was to make a very traditional point-and-click adventure, but we wanted to let Burly Men at Sea take shape in its own way, with the mechanics growing out of the story and setting. It’s very non-traditional in that sense, often somewhere nearer to a visual novel.

DC: We play a lot of adventure games, in fact, we just beat Thimbleweed Park last week. I feel like Doggins was more directly influenced by adventure games. With Burly Men, we wanted to take a little bit of a different approach. There’s really no puzzles in the game at all. It’s really more of an interactive storytelling experience. We like to think of the player as the storyteller, as they’re playing this game, telling the story that they wanna tell in every voyage.

You know, the biggest inspirations I think for Burly Men were Kentucky Route Zero, just because of its minimalism and its focus on writing and character. Brooke drew a lot of inspiration visually from the works of Saul Bass, as well Scandinavian illustrations. And even the fishing villages themselves the game was based on they have these colorful building like you see in the game, because of the cod oil that they’re using to make the paint. She just drew a lot from those sources.

Burly Men at Sea

GS: As you just said, your games are more like interactive storybook experiences, however for a lot of people “video game”, as a label, invokes only the idea of beating a high score or a level, shooting enemies, jumping over barrels etc. Do you think that kind of labeling perhaps inhibits how people view experiences like the ones you guys craft?

DC: Um…maybe. Maybe to probably more so quote unquote traditional gamers more so the newer casual audience. Maybe a little bit. You know, games have become a catchall term. In my mind at least, a game is just an interactive piece of media in some way. You’re right in that what we create are more interactive stories strictly than traditional gaming experiences, with lots of stats and numbers and levels and things like that. We just really like storytelling especially, that’s what we’re all about, but also interested in how games as an interactive medium can push storytelling forward with interactivity. I think that’s a nut that no-one has cracked yet. You know, we try in our own small way with Burly Men at Sea to give the player agency but at the same time be telling them a story even as they’re helping shape that story, in probably a bigger way than some other games.

The idea of a choose your own adventure game is nothing new, of course. But a lot of games present choice in a way that…has an effect on the player and maybe the characters in a small way, but it doesn’t have a big effect on the story as it’s unfolding. One of the things we tried to do specifically with Burly Men at Sea made it so that the choices you make really affect the plot in a way more than the characters. Even though the outcome is the same every time you play it, it’s really about that middle chunk that you’re affecting every time.

BC: I think that sort of narrow definition can prevent people from letting an experience be enjoyable for what it is. It’s something we’ve definitely gotten criticism for, on certain storefronts. To be honest, though, it doesn’t really matter to me whether what we make is called a game. There’s a broad field right now, where devs are making all sorts of interactive experiences, and maybe “game” doesn’t fit anymore, or maybe it does. That doesn’t need to affect the player’s experience.

But I do think labels are useful for categorizing, for making a choice about what to purchase. Setting expectations is important, and if players feel cheated, they get upset. The trouble is that right now there isn’t a category where expectations won’t be upset.

GS: The term “quiet little adventure” seems to almost be Brain&Brian’s motto, having used it to describe both Burly Men and Doggins. It’s fitting but how did that notion come to manifest your works?

DC: In a way, we feel like that term “quiet adventure” describes our lives. Adventure is often seen as a very grand notion; backpacking the entire Pacific Crest Trail, or traveling the world, and things that seem out of reach for most people. But, we believe that everyone has adventure within reach in some fashion. Maybe not quite so grand, but sometimes those are the best kinds; the “quiet adventures” that are just you going out into nature nearby or trying something new or different.

That’s something we try to inject a little of into our lives all the time. And we hope that our games kind of have that same spirit. They’re not necessarily epic adventures. They’re smaller, a little more intimate, a little more whimsical, and we think that’s something we all need every day.

A physical version of a story from ‘Burly Men at Sea’

GS: Getting into books, one thing I find really interesting, is the physical aspect of each possible story within Burly Men at Sea. By using a code given after every ending, players can actually get a hardbound version of their specific story, illustrations and all. How did this idea form?

BC: The idea came up pretty early in development, once we decided the game would have a branching story. We had something similar in mind for a different project, one we’re actually working on now, but the hardcover storybook format is unique to Burly Men at Sea. Its folktale influence and visuals just made that a perfect fit. What probably planted the idea in our heads is Cardboard Computer’s “The Entertainment,” one of their Kentucky Route Zero interludes. You can actually order a paperback of the play itself, which is sitting on our bookshelf right now. We love that sort of crossover between worlds.

DC: We love the idea of taking pieces of game-world and bringing them in the real world[..]In [Doggins], there’s an “un-invitation” that you get in the very beginning of the game and it’s this card. We actually made those specific cards and gave them out at festivals. And we thought with Burly Men at Sea, what better way to cap your adventure…what better way to show that you were the storyteller than by allowing you to get a book version of this story you told.

So, you know, it was a lot of work. Brooke actually re-created, and made, all new art for the books. It’s like we took elements slapped them together. Her idea was that the book would be designed in such a way that it would feel at home inside the game world. So, the art-style is even a little bit more simplistic and minimal than the game itself. And new text. Because there’s so many possibilities of ways to play the game, we had to make so many different books. It was a real challenge but we feel like it was sort of the capstone of this whole idea of you as a storyteller, and we also just love bringing the virtual into the real.

GS: It’s something I don’t think I’ve seen done before. It completes the whole idea of your personal story, becoming something you can actually physically have. And there’s always value in something you can physically grab.

DC: Yeah, we certainly think so. Especially since more and more is becoming things that you can’t. Everything is becoming more and more vaporous.

‘Doggins’

GS: Regarding Doggins, as this was your guys’ first released game, how do you think working on it and the reaction to it has informed your newer projects since?

DC: I think, when we were making Doggins, everything was born out of naivete and just…what made us laugh, or what we loved, and that was really, really fun. I think probably the biggest lesson we learned from Doggins were primarily business lessons. You know, about platforms and how to release and all that kind of stuff. I try to take all of that going forward. We also learned a little bit about how to really make a satisfying story. One of the things that people had a little bit of issue with, with Doggins, was that the length, you know, it’s not terribly long. And that’s OK. But we feel like that would have been less of an issue for some people if it had been a little more satisfying, coming full circle at the very end of the game. So, we try to take that lesson forward. That is informing what we are doing with Burly Men at Sea and even now, just making an experience that’s satisfying in that. Not necessarily going for something longer or shorter. Anything, just trying to let the game be what it should be. But, at the same time, keeping an eye toward a satisfying experience for the player.

BC: Doggins taught us a lot about how our process could be improved, but more importantly, it helped us find our voice. There’s this terrifying feeling at the start of a new project that it could be anything, and so much freedom makes it hard to start. But after spending two years on Doggins, we had a clearer idea of who we were as a team and what sorts of things we wanted to create.

GS: I think the issue of length is a big point of contention with a lot of people who play video games. I’ve always found that as a very interesting topic because for me, it doesn’t matter, the value of the thing is what it is. Doesn’t matter how long or short it is. But, that definitely seems to be a difficult balance when you’re selling a game, especially when it comes to monetary value.

DC: Yes! It is. And it’s a funny thing because it’s not like people get 30% off when they go see Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk because it’s only an hour and a half. It’s a weird thing. Or novels aren’t priced based on their length. It’s a very game-specific thing. But what we (Brain&Brain) don’t want to do is make decisions about the story we’re telling just so that we can make it long enough to hit a certain price point, or short enough so we can price it lower for mobile market or whatever. We really just wanna let the story dictate what it should be. And that’s a little bit hard because, like you said, it’s a contentious issue for some gamers and it might make it more difficult to price it at a certain level that you might want to. For us, it’s more important to maintain the integrity of the game itself.

BC: It seems like the majority of players are now familiar enough with indie games to understand that the scope of a AAA game isn’t reasonable for a small team, but they do expect a satisfying experience (and reasonably so). That’s really where the challenge lies, especially for a two-person team. We can only create so much content, so we have to make that short experience as satisfying as possible. But really, I think it’s all about setting expectations. No one complains when they pick up a book of short stories and discover that the stories are short. They complain when they thought they’d picked up a novel. We tried to do a better job of this with Burly Men at Sea, especially after hearing “too short” so many times in Doggins reviews. A single playthrough is short, and since we couldn’t be sure players would go back to try other branches, it was risky. Of course, we could’ve played it safe by combining all the middle branches into a single 3 to 4 hour adventure, but that wasn’t the story we wanted to tell.

GS: How does the real Oliver Doggins feel about all of this? Has he stayed humble?

BC: Ha! I’m not sure he’s ever been much of a humble dog, so he fully supports anything that leads to extra attention. I never could talk David into bringing him to festivals, though…

DC: [laughs] …I think he had a great time because when we were making Burly Men at Sea, we were on the road for eighteen months. We criss-crossed all of North America and he had a front-row seat of the car and got to see everywhere we were going, and went on hikes and had a great time. So, I think he’s been pretty happy about it all.

GS: That’s good!

‘Burly Men at Sea’

GS: Wrapping up, what has been your favorite or most rewarding moment in the creation and then release of either Burly Men or Doggins?

BC: There have been a lot of rewarding moments, but lately, it’s been most encouraging to hear from players who turn to our games to counter unhappiness or stress. We want to make games that can do that—not as escapism, but as a celebration of what is good. That seems more important now than ever.

DC: Oh boy, that’s a good question. [long pause] OK, so, probably over the course of the whole journey, my favorite moment was just showing Doggins at a festival for the very first time[..]We were at SXSW, first time showing any game publicly, it was our first time at a game conference at all. And the interactions with the developers, who are still some of our best friends, and getting to see people play our game and really get it, and love it, and stay 30 or 45 minutes playing our game when they could be walking around enjoying the show…that was really pretty amazing. And, the coolest thing that happened when we released Burly Men at Sea was the morning that we shipped the game, we woke up and saw a review from TIME that gave it a five out of five, and it was the most well-written, glowing review. It was a great way to start release day, and that moment still sticks out. It was really exciting for us.

GS: Do you have that review framed by any chance?

DC: [laughs] We should. We should print it and frame it. We don’t but we should.

*****************************
Many thanks to David and Brooke for taking the time to talk to GS about their projects, lives, the gaming industry, and Oliver Doggins. Burly Men at Sea is due to set sail for the PS4/PS Vita on September 19th, and it might just inspire you to find an adventure that’s already within your reach.

Maxwell N is a writer and content developer from Los Angeles, California, Immensely fascinated by the arts and interactive media, his views and opinions are backed by a vast knowledge of and passion for film, music, literature and game history in general. His hobbies, outside of gaming, include fiction writing, creating experimental soundscapes, and photography. He lives with his wife and pet potato/parrot. He can mostly be found hanging around Twitter as @maxn_

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  • Marty Allen

    Really excited to see this great interview up on Goomba! ‘Burly Men’ is one of my favorite games of the last few years!

    • Maxwell N

      I’m glad to see the game is getting wider recognition.